December 23, 2010

"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."

That aphorism -- attributed to Mark Twain -- has been dramatically repudiated by Tuesday's initial release of statewide population data from the 2010 Census. The quest for mild winters remains the great constant of American demographics. For the first time in history, more than half of the nation's population (308,745,538) resides either in the South or in the warm-weather states of California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Even though they had been long anticipated, the Census results (used to allocate House seats and, by the same formula, electoral votes) further fuel the Republican resurgence. If the 2008 election were rerun based on the 2010 Census, John McCain would have corralled an additional six electoral votes (although at this rate he still would not become president until 2170). The major potential gains for the Republicans come from GOP-dominated Texas (which was awarded a whopping four more electoral votes) and the 2008 Obama states of New York and Ohio (which lost two votes each).

While there will be no more tinkering with the Electoral College until after the 2020 Census, the epic struggle over congressional redistricting has just begun. The Census Bureau will not release any city, county or census tract data until February, so population trends within states remain estimates. Other factors also will shape redistricting, from control of state legislatures and gubernatorial mansions (advantage Republicans) to federal voting rights scrutiny of states like Texas to assure minority representation (advantage Democrats). Despite hopeful scenarios pushed by Democrats, the political consensus is that when the last computer draws the last gerrymandered district, House Republicans will have strengthened their 242-to-193 seat margin in the incoming Congress.

The regional break in states winning and losing House seats is unequivocal. The gains are in Texas (four), Florida (two), South Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Washington State (one each). The counterbalancing losses are in New York (two), Ohio (two), Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri (one each). The only exception to this story of Sunbelt ascendancy is that Katrina-ravaged Louisiana lost a House seat in the new Census.

To show you how the population has shifted, since 1950 New York has lost 18 seats (45 to 27) and Ohio has lost eight seats since 1970, and Pennsylvania has lost fully half its seats (36 to 18) since 1930.

As the result of the election in November which added Governors and State Legislatures to the GOP column, Republicans control the redistricting process in eight of 18 states that are gaining or losing seats, while Democrats control it in just two. The rest, I assume, have splits between the State House and State Senate and/or the party affiliation of the legislature and the Governor.

That means the GOP has the ability to alter the districts within those states they control to throw the maximum number of Democrats into the minimum number of Congressional Districts and spread the GOP areas out among the rest of the Districts.

The national population growth rate (9.7 percent) in the first decade of the 21st century was lower than in any decade since the Depression (population grew at 7.3 percent during the 1930s). At a press conference unveiling the first wave of population data, Census Director Robert Groves estimated that about 60 percent of the population growth comes from natural causes (more births than deaths) and about 40 percent is the result of immigration (legal and illegal). Following procedures that date back to the first Census in 1790, no questions were asked about citizenship or immigration status.

It is tempting to become beguiled by Census factoids. With 37.3 million people (a 10 percent increase over 2000), California is roughly equivalent to Poland (38.0 million). Despite a 14 percent growth rate in the past decade, Wyoming (just 563,626 people -- and it seems cruel to round off that number) remains the least populated state, a distinction that it has held since Alaska surged past it in the 1990 Census. Michigan, reeling from the decline of the auto industry, was the only state to lose population (down 55,000) during the 2000s. And Nevada recorded the fastest growth rate of any state during the last decade (35.1 percent), even though it may now be actually losing population because of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the nation.

But far more important than these details is the continued demographic collapse of the Northeast (the nation's least populous region, believe it or not) and the Midwest. In every Census since 1940, the population of the South and West has grown faster than that of either of these Frost Belt regions. Continuing a losing streak that rivals the Prohibition Party, New York has been stripped of at least two House seats every decade since 1950 declining from 45 seats to 27. The last time a state north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Continental Divide was awarded an additional House seat was half a century ago. (For those who love this kind of political trivia: Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey each picked up an additional seat in the 1960 Census).

Enshrined among the first paragraphs of the U.S. Constitution, the Census remains a crucial building block of representative democracy. As early as 1776, Pennsylvania's state constitution unequivocally declared, "Representation in proportion to the number of taxable inhabitants is the only principle which can at all times secure liberty." But as recently as the 1920s, Congress refused to reapportion for an entire decade because rural interests rightly feared that they would lose power to the fast-growing immigrant-filled cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

The reason to invoke this Census history is that every line of demographic data will be parsed and pureed for partisan advantage during redistricting. But for the moment -- in an unbroken chain dating back to 1790s when Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson presided over the first Census -- Americans can marvel at the statistical precision of this epic inventory of who we are as a people. All 308,745,538 of us.

We believe that the Constitution of the United States speaks for itself. There is no need to rewrite, change or reinterpret it to suit the fancies of special interest groups or protected classes.